As cases explode, China’s low COVID death toll fools no one – Rip News

“These are an example of ‘believing in one’s own lies,’” Mei Xinyu, an economist at a research institute affiliated with the Commerce Ministry, wrote on his social media page, commenting on a daily report of COVID figures released by the government. He later posted an announcement that the father-in-law of a prominent economist had died from pneumonia induced by COVID. The man’s family, he wrote, waited hours for an ambulance to arrive and take him to the hospital.

“In the end, he could only be left on the floor of the hospital mortuary, awaiting cremation,” Mei wrote. He said that the family was having trouble getting a cremation slot and hiring a hearse. “The family members are heartbroken.”

Vehicles wait to enter a parking lot outside Dongjiao Funeral Parlour, reportedly designated to handle Covid fatalities, in Beijing, China, last week.Credit:Bloomberg

As is the case elsewhere, deaths in China tend to rise in winter, because of an increase in flu and other respiratory infections, even in normal times. But people working in funeral services say they have noticed a larger increase than usual. At the Yong’an funeral services business in Shijiazhuang, a city about 200 miles southwest of Beijing, an employee said he used to handle 10 deaths per month but is now getting calls for about five each day.

Some Chinese media reports have acknowledged a handful of COVID-related deaths. Wang Ruoji, 37, a retired soccer star, died after a COVID infection worsened an underlying condition. Caixin, a respected news outlet, wrote that Zhou Zhichun, a former senior editor at a Communist Party newspaper, died at 77 after getting COVID, with his doctors classifying the cause as sudden cardiac death.

But on social media, users have shared official obituaries of several other prominent people who have died in recent days, including an opera singer and an artist who helped design sports mascots. Many speculated that the true cause of these deaths was being concealed with descriptions such as “severe cold infections”.

Workers transfer a body into a container for storage at a crematorium in Beijing last weekend.

Workers transfer a body into a container for storage at a crematorium in Beijing last weekend.Credit:AP

At a government news conference Tuesday, Wang Guiqiang, an infectious diseases expert, said China counts only those who died from pneumonia or respiratory failure caused by COVID in its official toll. He said that cases of fatal pneumonia are less frequent because the Omicron variant that is prevalent now infects mostly the upper airway.

Another official explained why China revised its COVID death toll down by one this week. A review by experts determined that one death reported Tuesday was a person who had died from other diseases, Yao Xiujun, a publicity official at the Beijing Municipal Commission of Health and Family Planning, said in a phone interview.

China’s limited definition excludes the deaths of people who had underlying diseases that were aggravated by COVID. Deaths in China are also only ascribed to COVID by panels of experts convened by hospitals, potentially leaving out people who died at home or elsewhere.

In contrast, the United States, Britain and Hong Kong tend to include people who died with COVID, and not just of it, to varying degrees.

China might not be alone in its approach. In Russia, the government counts only deaths confirmed to have been directly caused by the virus.


On Wednesday, Michael Ryan, head of health emergencies at the World Health Organisation, suggested that China’s definition was inadequate. “It’s quite focused on respiratory failure – people who die of COVID die from many different systems failures given the severity of the infection,” he said.

China’s methodology, he said, “will very much underestimate the true death toll associated with COVID”.

Such an underestimate has its advantages, health experts say. It could limit public panic and reduce the burden imposed on hospitals by people who are not severely ill. Already, China has been struggling to provide supplies of ibuprofen and other fever-reducing medication as people have rushed to hoard such drugs.


An underestimate could also help businesses at a time when the government has been trying to rescue an economy battered by nearly three years of disruptive lockdowns and costly testing programs. In some large cities, companies and officials are encouraging people to go to work even when mildly sick with COVID.

But an undercount could also backfire by undermining the government’s own efforts to urge the public to take necessary precautions. Many seniors in China might continue avoiding vaccination, and younger people might take the virus less seriously than they should, said Jin Dongyan, a virus expert at the University of Hong Kong.

Jin said China has for decades recorded deaths from infectious diseases narrowly, including severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003 and seasonal flu. It made an exception during the Shanghai lockdown this spring, using a looser definition as authorities sought to justify what became a bruising, two-month lockdown.

Of the 588 COVID deaths the Shanghai city government reported, one was ascribed to a heart attack and the rest to “underlying conditions” or “tumours”. Despite this inconsistency, the National Health Commission has never expunged those deaths from the national data.


No matter what the official numbers depict, China is expecting a wave of deaths.

“Although the overall case fatality rate is low, the number of people infected is very large, so this may make the absolute number of deaths caused by this risk relatively large,” Wang Guangfa, a respiratory specialist at Peking University First Hospital, said in an interview.

Already, the strain is fuelling public frustration.

“The funeral homes are crazily packed,” said a Beijing resident who would only give her surname, Chen, for fear of retaliation from the government. Chen said her grandfather died on Tuesday of COVID complications, including pneumonia and kidney failure, after being in a coma for a week.

It took two days for Chen’s family to find a funeral home in Beijing that would cremate her grandfather’s body. Chen also expressed scepticism over the government’s COVID statistics.

“If there are only five COVID deaths in one day, I have known nearly half of them,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking that we Beijing people have to bear the first impact of the massive spread of the virus.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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